Premillennial Tension: revisiting Birmingham in 1999

It’s 1999, Birmingham, the end of the millennium and Jim Vale, aka Jimmy Tyrant, singer of one hit wonders The Tyrants, has lost everything he once loved. Like Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and many rockers before him, Jim tries to end it all by committing suicide at the age of twenty seven. Trouble is… he survives.  To clear his debts the band’s manager suggests Jim fake his own death – just for a while – so they can raise The Tyrants’ profile and sell some records.

But as the press and the fans wonder more and more about the disappearance of the mysterious  Jimmy Tyrant, Jim gets drawn deeper into Birmingham’s gangland and  further  away from his ex-girlfriend, his troubled family and music.

Karaoke-singing gangsters, reclusive teenage internet millionaires, sex, drugs and rock and roll all collide as Jim tries to understand the person he has become, to come to terms with his tumultuous past and somehow make it beyond the age of twenty seven.

27” is a book about one man’s search for love, music and his true self.

In this extract Jim has come back to a city in flux. Birmingham is leaving its industrial past to flat line. It is a city that’s centre has been ripped open and torn apart for the rebuilding of the Bull Ring Shopping Centre. Fin de siècle Birmingham was the ideal setting for a story of upheaval, confusion, fear and change.

Oh, and according to Nostradamus, it will soon to be the end of the world. And the millennium bug is going to help it along. Remember the millennium bug? The music industry was also mutating; the first Pop Idol TV show has been aired in New Zealand and is winging its way like a hungry Pterodactyl to our shores.

We join Jim after he has secured a bolthole in the city centre to hide from the not so bothered press. Now he needs to secure his future with a solo album and find the girl he left behind for a life on the road…

Burt had told him that Lulu was playing requests at The Champagne Bar on Fridays. Every other Sunday she was at a lesbian bar called The Chain Makers, playing piano for a woman called Gee-Gee as she sang songs from pre-war Berlin. Before he went to The Chain Makers he had to find a quiet place to make a phone call, so he walked to Digbeth and found The Royal George pub. He wanted a whisky but ordered an orange juice. Pulp’s ‘Disco 2000’ fizzed from the speakers. Next to him sat a squat man with a white, wavy side-parting. His dry, stubby hand cupped a whisky. He was speaking to the barman and anyone who would listen.

“The bug! The Millennium Bug! All yer computers, yer fancy bollocks. Gone! Planes fallin’ from the sky. From the fucking sky! Hospital machinery running into the ground! Dead bodies all over! And the banks: money flying out of the holes in the wall!” The old man spun right round and fixed Jim with a glassy stare. “It’s fucking Armageddon! Sell yer soul just to live. All will change. It’s the end for ya!”

The barman rolled his eyes.

Jim smiled warily and walked into the quiet of the empty back room and sat down. He pulled out his notebook and the phone Burt had given him. He flicked it to the last page, where he’d written Bix Pillar’s number. He looked over the sagging loops of the sixes and eights, the curved ones that may be sevens and the sloping numbers between; were they threes or fives? It was a number scrawled drunkenly and in haste. Had Bix just been music-industry bullshitting? Was he telling Jim how great he was so that if Jim actually did have a hit, Bix could say that after a gig in a half-empty strip club in Paris, he was one of the privileged few who spotted that Jim’s genius was too big for The Tyrants to contain? Jim didn’t even know what time was it in Finland.

Fuck it. He could always leave a message.

He dialled and waited.

“’Lo?” The clamour of feedback swirled down the line.

“Bix?”

“’Lo?” Feedback and screaming voices.

“Bix? It’s Jim Vale. Jimmy Tyrant?” Jim said louder.

“Yah. Wait.” The screams and feedback faded and he heard a door slam.

“Shoot.”

“Hi, Bix, it’s Jimmy Tyrant, from The Tyrants. You talked with me in Paris about us doing an album together. You said I reminded you of Iggy Pop. Said you thought my lyrics were up there with Lou Reed’s?”

“Ah… Paris? Jim. The Tyrants, yes! It’s been a while. You are okay?”

“Yeah, well. Sort of. It’s complicated… I’m calling about what you said, about the solo album. I’ve got some songs that I wanna put together and I’m basically saying, yes, I’ll take you up on the offer, do a solo album. The sooner the better.”

“Ha, yes. Well. Okay… if only you had called, like two days before…”

“Oh, why’s that?”

“I’ve just taken on a very big project. Secret? But let me say one word: Björk.”

“Oh, that’s great. I always thought you two should make a record…”

“Yeah, well. Perfect. She wants me to record a herd of polar bears giving birth on the strike of the Millennium. It’s always one on one with Bix. And it’s Björk so… Listen, you are pretty well unknown all over – I heard your last single. The hip-hop beats over a garage rock song, what were you thinking?”

“After ‘Snitches’ went to number one the label thought it was the best way to get another hit. It had nothing to do with me, I assure you.”

“Look, I have to say, you are a liability. But you have something, er, raw. Unknown. I like your voice, your act, Jimmy. But it will take me to make you a star. Okay? I’m not working New Year’s Day. Forget it, but after I have two weeks free. From the fifth of January.”

“That sounds great.” Jim’s heart was hammering against his shirt – that was two weeks before his twenty-eighth birthday.

“Two things. Bring songs. And bring money. For you? Ten thousand. I’ll make the best album for you. Okay?”

Down the line Jim heard a door clunk open; feedback squealing again.

“I have to go. Bye-bye.” Bix hung up.

Jim’s head felt light, and his body numb. If Burt was dealing what he said he was dealing then it shouldn’t be a problem, especially with all the Millennium parties. Jim had just over a month to get the cash and get some songs together. He had the lyrics, he just needed the music.

The Silk Cut clock behind the bar said 00.10.

He downed his drink and left.

 ***

A heavy-set bouncer stood in the doorway of The Chain Makers, her ash-blond hair scraped back, feet touching the side of the entrance. She shook her head from side to side even before he spoke.

“Sorry, mate.”

“What, ’cause I’m a man?”

“No. ’Cause you look like shit. There’s a themed dress code, like. And you’re nowhere near it.”

“I’ve come to see Louise –”

“There’s loads of ’em in there, pal.” She sniffed and looked over his head.

“No… I know. Louise is the pianist for Gee-Gee?”

“Is she?”

“Yeah. So, I just want to –”

“You’re not going in on any level.”

She folded her hands over her crotch and looked back up the road as if he had already left.

Jim walked around the back and looked through a window. The stage was empty. Lulu must have been on her break.

He found the stage door and knocked. Nothing. He knocked again and waited, and then heard faint footsteps from behind the door. As they got louder, he felt his stomach pinch; his testicles and arse become slick with sweat. The door opened. Lulu stood in the frame, her black hair, shining under the lamplight, pulled back into a ponytail. She was wearing a dinner jacket with a pink buttonhole and white silk culottes. Her lips were blood-red and her eyelids a smoky grey. She wrapped her arms round herself and squinted to see him.

“I’m back on in five. If this is anything to do with another cruise ship deal, I’ll tell you now –”

Jim pulled out of the shadows of the door and stood with a big smile under the street lamp in front of her.

“Hi, Lu.”

Her eyes narrowed. “My God…” Then she turned quickly and ran back into the club. Jim rushed towards her, but the door closed fast in his face and he was left in the orange scent of her wake.

He banged a few times. The door flew open and he was greeted by the sarcastic grin of the bouncer.

“You again?”

She went to grab his arm. Jim twisted himself away and threw up his hands in defence.

“Okay. Okay. Fine. I’m walking, walking back to the street. Okay?”

 ***

He wandered back up into town. The Bull Ring shopping centre had been demolished since he’d left the city a year ago to go on tour to promote Here Come The Tyrants. He walked up to the fence that surrounded the hole where it once stood, slipped his fingers through icy metal mesh and peered down. A huge black mouth looked back at him, the building joists snapped and exposed like rotten teeth. The Shipwreck Club had been levelled to the ground too. Memories of The Tyrants’ first gig there – his hands shaking ecstatically on the mic stand before the first song – flashed through Jim’s head. He experienced a strange feeling, like joy, loss and sadness were converging all at once. The sensation was too big, too painful to make sense of, so he turned and strode quickly up the street, back to the hotel, with the image of Lulu’s face in the lamplight fixed like a frame from a movie in his mind.

 

For more on Ryan and 27.

Twitter:@roymonde

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